Women and Money: the Last Taboo

Liz Perle, a former publishing executive in her 50s who lives in San Francisco, was in a plane over the Pacific Ocean when it dawned on her that she had dug herself into a financial hole. Actually, it was more like a crater.
Liz Perle, a former publishing executive in her 50s who lives in San Francisco, was in a plane over the Pacific Ocean when it dawned on her that she had dug herself into a financial hole. Actually, it was more like a crater.

Women and Money: the Last Taboo

Liz Perle, a former publishing executive in her 50s who lives in San Francisco, was in a plane over the Pacific Ocean when it dawned on her that she had dug herself into a financial hole. Actually, it was more like a crater. Her husband, then posted in Singapore, had decided he no longer wanted to be married - and she was left, a four-year-old in tow, to fly back to the United States with no job, no home and no bank accounts or credit cards in her own name. She had a total of US$1,500 in cash, and it was in her pocket.

"How could someone as smart as I am, and who's been as independent financially as I've been, do something like that?" Perle asks herself, 18 years later, in deep hindsight. She had completely relinquished financial control over her life to her (now ex) husband. And the answer, she says, "is this great politically incorrect thing that sits there like the elephant in the room: I wanted somebody to take care of me and I equate care and cash. That's it."

Perle's epiphany about her own emotionally conflicted relationship with MONEY got her thinking. She began speaking with dozens of other women, more than 200 in all, and with a rainbow of psychology and money experts. What she found is that, overwhelmingly, women's feelings about their financial lives are ambivalent and bogged down by years of social and cultural baggage. And this is reflected in their actions. The result of her exploration is a new book called Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash.

Unlike the myriad personal finance self-help books lining the shelves, Money, a Memoir is not about how to save, spend or invest. It's about the peculiar and often irrational behaviour women tend to engage in where money is concerned. Perle says she chose to approach the book as a memoir because of how reticent women generally are to discuss the subject. "We've been told money isn't polite to talk about," she says. "We know more about our friends' sex lives than we do their fiscal ones, so I had to tell my story in order for others to open up and tell theirs. I think it was very easy for people to identify with my anxieties because I'm really honest about them. I'm honest about saying, 'How come I'm a successful businesswoman who won't look at her Visa bill? Why do I lie about the cost of a new winter coat to my husband? He could care less.'"

One theme that recurred was that women tend to associate money, consciously or not, with love. "For most of recorded history, we weren't allowed to have money of our own," Perle writes. "Our path to financial security lay through men." This legacy, she says, is one reason that even confident, successful women like her have been known to hand over responsibility for money matters to the men in their lives. Being taken care of - being loved - in that way is still something of an unspoken cultural ideal.

Whereas men have a more straightforward relationship with money (they are evaluated in society for their ability to produce it), women are torn between two sets of modern values. On the one hand, says Perle, they want money and are expected to be able to generate it. On the other, they're still expected to care for their family's needs first and foremost. The push-and-pull of it all often leads to what Perle calls "magical thinking" - the fantasy that a white knight will take care of all of her financial troubles. This isn't necessarily a regressive fantasy; the white knight is often not a man at all, but a dream job or maybe a lottery. "The white knight could even be a novel," she says, as someone who's spent a lot of time around people with writerly ambitions. "I can't tell you how many women I spoke to had novels in their drawers. They thought they were going to write the great American or the great Canadian novel."

One of the difficulties, she says, is that baby boomers are the first generation of women to experience wide-scale financial independence. "We've gotten caught in a time warp where our economic realities have changed faster than our expectations and identities," she writes. The result is a great deal of strange behaviour. "Some women are unbelievable hoarders," says Perle."They're so terrified they're going to end up bag ladies because they don't think their husbands know what they're doing, or they don't have husbands, so they never spend anything." Others - "a phenomenal number," she says - sock money away in secret. Perle's grandmother first taught her about the concept of a "knipple" (a Yiddish word pronounced kah-nipple) when she was only nine years old. "It's a woman's private stash," her grandmother told her. "Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. What she needs. Remember that."

As it turns out, Perle says, women feel money is somewhat immoral, which explains why it is so laden with taboos. This notion is not unique to women, she says. It comes from our puritanical North American roots. And yet women value - and even fetishize - material things. It's a mixed-up relationship women have learned to navigate by reinventing their wants as needs. They shop not for the life they have, but for a fantasy life in which $100 face creams and gourmet kitchen implements make sense. "When I started writing the book, the average credit card debt in the U.S. was US$8,000," says Perle. "Now it's US$9,000." A large number of women say they avoid opening their credit card statements every month. "They think, 'I don't want to face my own appetites,' " she says. " 'I don't want to face the fact that I can't believe I spent $150 for that shirt. I don't even like it. What was I thinking?' "

Perhaps the most inflammatory assertion Perle makes is that the primary reason why women only earn 78 per cent of what men earn is that women simply don't fight for money the way men do. Women don't like to look at themselves in material terms, she says. They find it humiliating, even vulgar. They worry they'll come across as a money-grubber or a gold digger.

There's a little voice inside every woman, says Perle, that tells her that, when it comes to achieving financial security, her safest path is the path of least resistance. Perle calls this voice her "Inner Stewardess." "I purposely use that term because it's so outdated and ludicrous," she says. "It's this whole business of if I'm nice, they'll reward me." And while the Inner Stewardess may be fading from the home, studies suggest she's still very active in the workplace - where a man in charge is still very likely to be her gateway to money. "Men are four times more likely to negotiate a first salary," she says. "They compare it to going to a ball game. Women compare it to going to a dentist." In her book, Perle cites one 2003 study, conducted at the University of California, Irvine, in which the researcher held mock job interviews with M.B.A. students. She offered everyone US$61,000 for the same position. By the end of the negotiations, the men had settled on an average salary of $68,556, the women, $67,000. "But most revealing," she writes, "85 per cent of the men said they knew what they were worth. A similar number of women responded that they weren't sure."

Ironically, the Inner Stewardess - "with her jaunty little hat and white gloves, tight navy-blue A-line skirt, and nylon hose" - can also be a very good friend. When a woman starts bending herself into weird shapes and giving up her dignity in order to stay attached to money, says Perle, the Stewardess serves as a gentle reminder that jaunty little hats went out a long time ago, along with pointy bras and sanitary belts.

Maclean's February 13, 2006